The cure for the pain is in the pain.
I scrolled down my Instagram feed when I spotted it. It was an image of a jail cell on Rikers Island. Below was a caption that read, “Free studio apartment in a gated community with ocean views and vintage style rod-iron double doors. Excellent security and free laundry.”
I still laugh when I see this meme on social media because it is a funny rendering of life inside an otherwise brutal and oppressive place, but I also realize the gravity of the reality that a cell was once the most transformative space for my soul. The transformation started nearly nine years ago. I was 16 years old facing 25 years in prison for attempted murder.
Sadly, my life starting spiraling downhill long before that. I was 12 when I fell knee-deep into gang life. My life was constantly at jeopardy and my freedom, compromised. Membership dictated what colors I could wear, who I could befriend and where I could go. Sutphin Boulevard, Brentwood and Hempstead were only a few of the New York names that evolved semantically from just streets and spaces to danger zones to avoid.
By 15, violence and death reached a level of normalcy for me or maybe it didn’t. Alcohol or drugs had become part of my daily regimen so that I could spare myself from reliving the details during my waking hours. I was miserable, to say the least. I wanted to change, but I didn’t know any other way, especially one that would allow me to renege on my oath with my “brothers” and “sisters.
Little did I know, a year from then, an arrest for attempted murder was what it would take.
When I first got to Rikers Island, I wanted to die. Surrounded on all sides by the East River, this island wasn’t any island you could ever imagine. You could see inmates out the window in white- and orange-striped outfits hopping in and out of the back of trucks collecting garbage from each jail.
Bound by rows and rows of barbed wire, the 10 facilities in this jail were built upon 413 acres of pure landfill, and the hot August air was determined to remind the nostrils of anyone who decided to cross over the bridge onto the island of this fact. Can you imagine the repulsive task of having to eat your chili-flavored ramen noodles dinner while trying to fight off the stench of garbage and sewage?
Visits with our loved ones were short, but nothing was shorter than our three-minute showers. I don’t think anything could have prepared me for cold, curtainless showers in front of strangers. It wasn’t like you wanted to be in there for more than three minutes anyway since the water being pumped out of the showerhead had the tendency to turn the color of your coffee. If the water wasn’t immediately turning brown, you’d definitely know you were in Rikers once the Corcraft soap started bleaching your skin overtime.
Betrayed and lonely
The living conditions drove people insane, but for me, nothing could bring on despondency quicker than reading the statements my “brothers” and “sisters” had written against me to the police. They had promised to testify against me in exchange for doing no prison time. I felt betrayed and abandoned. The pain of feeling robbed of my time, childhood and freedom kept me up for a week straight.
But it was in that feeling of poverty that I realized all I ever had was Allah. Just as I was now — companionless and propertyless — I’d be in my grave. That realization was enough to bring me back to Allah.
Lonely, desperate and eager for comfort in my cell, I devoured the Quran, page by page, verse by verse, imagining its descriptions of Paradise, with its gardens, plants, springs and spaces of security. Reading about the pillars of Islam and the rewards for praying, fasting or even smiling, it dawned on me that the only covenant that was worthy of honoring for a lifetime was the one with Allah, the same covenant that the progeny of Adam (peace be upon him) took at the beginning of creation (Quran 7:172).
During the first few years of my incarceration, I found it hard to forgive myself for my past transgressions. Thinking of having a family in the future, I could not imagine someone hurting my child the way I had hurt others. It was the application of Islam’s constant reminders of mercy like “All the sons of Adam (peace be upon him) are sinners and the best of all sinners are those that repent often” (Ibn Majah), that helped soften my heart.
Throughout the years, I would try to get my hands on every VHS tape in the masjid of every prison I was transferred to. I listened to dozens of Muslim speakers from Siraj Wahhaj to Bilal Philips and Hamza Yusuf and taught what I learned to the older converts around me who were struggling to learn the basics of the deen (creed). Actually, by surrounding myself with the Muslims in the prison masjid, it was me who really learned that love was when you wanted for your brothers and sisters what you wanted for yourself. Love was not blindly hurting yourself and others for recognition.
My real weapon
Yet, there so much more to learn and relearn. I admit, in a maximum-security prison, it was challenging to find a balance between maintaining a respectable character for survival and exercising basic Islamic virtues, like patience. At times, I found myself mentally vacillating between knocking someone out with a chair and trying to follow the example of Rasulullah’s (peace be upon him) noble character. Alhamdulillah (praise be to Allah).
At these times I found that du’a (supplication) was my real weapon — no longer any knives or guns. It was by His grace that I was not only able to avoid several violent solutions during my seven years, but it was also by His grace that I was able to bring some of the most unlikely people into the fold of Islam.
It has been a year after my release and honestly, I never imagined making it past my 21st birthday with the life I was living. But Allah didn’t only save my life, He saved my relationship with Him. Prison was undoubtedly one of the hardest experiences I’ve had to undergo but remaining in the life I was in before prison would have been harder.
He put me in a place where I physically owned nothing and had no choices or the “camaraderie” that I once thought I had in the streets, just to show me that my relationship with Him is the only one that I could depend on all along. No matter how unforgivable I thought my actions seemed, He’d be there with no less love and mercy for me. Looking back, I see that the cure for the pain was in the pain.
Najet Miah is pursuing a triple major at َQueens College.